Jyothi Radhika Vijayakumar does not specify which translated speech it was that she watched one day in 2011, that made her want to be a translator of political speeches. You might wonder if it was one of those many translations that have been going wrong whenever a political leader landed from another state and spoke in Hindi or English in Kerala. Jyothi – a junior lawyer and a teacher of sociology at the Kerala Civil Service Academy – smiles away the praises that have been coming her way in the past 24 hours, after her strong and apt translations of Congress President Rahul Gandhi’s speeches on Tuesday.
“I don’t know how it happened, may be because I have been listening to Rahulji’s speeches for a while,” she says.
Rahul, who is contesting the Lok Sabha elections from Kerala’s Wayanad, apart from his home turf of Amethi, was in the state for a round of campaigning on Tuesday. At two places, Jyothi stood by him, her rhythm matching that of the Congress leader's. It was on the same day that Rahul Gandhi’s speech had been terribly translated by another party leader in Pathanamthitta.
To Rahul’s "Congress is fighting BJP and RSS", the translator – PJ Kurien’s – version was "Congress is fighting BJP and Marxists". To his election promise that the party would give Rs 3.6 lakhs in five years to each of the poorest of poor, Kurien added the words "lakh crore" – Rs 3.6 lakh crore.
Jyothi is also the daughter of a Congressman from Chengannur, Adv D Vijayakumar, and on top of that a former journalist and television anchor. “I have also worked in Corporate Communications at UST, Technopark,” she says.
But then translation has never been considered an easy job – even by those who write, bringing to their regional languages many gems from foreign literature. When it has to be spontaneous and on stage, one can guess how much tougher it can get. Quite a few speeches have famously gone wrong –Narendra Modi’s speech in his first visit to the state as Prime Minister, communist leader Brinda Karat’s speech in 2016, and Rahul Gandhi’s speech in Tamil Nadu which was translated by KV Thankabalu.
BJP leader K Surendran – now contesting from Pathanamthitta LS seat – had been trolled a lot for that 2014 translation of Modi’s very important speech in Hindi. Surendran had got the very first line wrong when he translated Modi’s apology for the late visit to Kerala, as "I am very happy to come to Kerala". He was replaced later by the BJP’s V Muraleedharan that day. It didn’t help Surendran that he had earlier asked Congress leader VT Balram to learn Hindi on a Facebook exchange.
Malayalis, of course, can be very rude when it comes to mocking a person. Actor Rima Kallingal wrote a Facebook post in 2015, a year after the Surendran episode, when communist leader PK Sreemathy too got trolled for her lack of fluency in English. “From the Sreemathy Teacher incident to the K Surendran incident we Malayalis are exposing a weird complex we all inherit from where I do not know. Trolling and mudslinging on such low levels will only take out the importance of what we are actually looking at achieving,” she wrote.
Not that it toned down the jibes. Brinda Karat’s comrade was no less mocked when he kept getting her words wrong, and even she could make that out. When Brinda said "women of Kerala", he translated it as "criminals of Kerala". When she expressed contempt at the brutal attack on the Perumbavoor rape victim, he added that she was insulted too. Finally, she said she could understand "kurachu kurachu" (bits of) Malayalam and began mixing English and Malayalam. Much like Rahul said at the end of his trying efforts to work with Kurien, that he would pick up a few words in the language. But both Rahul and Brinda had shown presence of mind, never losing their temper, and smiling patiently even after realising that their powerful speeches were going for a toss.
It is to this crop of translators that Jyothi, with her perfect Malayalam and apt pronunciations stepped in, coolly, calmly. After watching a translation in Chennai in 2011, she told her dad she could help if the Congress party needed a translator. That year, when Rahul Gandhi came to Kerala, Jyothi would do her first translation of his speech. After that, she seems to have become an expert of sorts of the Gandhi family speeches –translating for both mother (Sonia Gandhi) and son during their various visits in 2014, 2016, 2017 and now in 2019. “I can handle Malayalam, English and Hindi pretty okay,” she says modestly.